The Home Office has published guidance, in effect from 17 April 2020, relaxing some requirements for education institutions and international students affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
These guidelines represent significant (if temporary) concessions for Tier 4 sponsor institutions, Tier 4 students and short-term students under UKVI’s normally stringent regime. UKVI will regularly review the concessions and withdraw them, “once the situation returns to normal.”
Tier 4 Sponsors
Significant concessions for Tier 4 sponsors to be aware of include:
Unless there are serious concerns about a sponsor, UKVI will take a “pragmatic” approach to inspections, using desk based/virtual methods where necessary. UKVI will also deal with unavoidable delays flexibly and will not reduce a sponsor’s CAS allocation for this reason. Sponsors must keep a record of communications with the relevant Educational Oversight body in connection with any delay or alternative inspection.
UKVI will not take enforcement measures if sponsors continue to sponsor students who are absent because of Covid-19 and sponsors do not need to report related absences. Sponsors must maintain records of students who are absent for this reason.
Tier 4 sponsors can continue to sponsor existing Tier 4 students continuing their studies through distance learning, including new students with a Tier 4 visa who have been unable to travel to the UK. The requirement for students on courses below degree level to have a minimum of 15 hours study per week to be considered full-time has also been relaxed.
- Basic compliance assessment
Students who withdraw from studies because of Covid-19 will be discounted from the Sponsor’s data in future Basic Compliance Assessments. However, sponsors must notify UKVI of the reason for withdrawal and maintain records.
Sponsors no longer need to report students for missing expected contact points when it is because (1) they are no longer attending classroom based learning as a result of moving to distance learning, (2) Covid-19 related illness or (3) Covid-19 related travel. Where possible sponsors should use expected online contract points to monitor attendance. If a student has stopped attending for reasons other than the above, the normal attendance monitoring policy applies to online learning.
- Validity of CAS which have already been issued
Students can make Tier 4 applications with CAS that were previously issued. The Home Office will take a “pragmatic” approach to considering applications to study courses with significantly different start dates to those stated on CAS or expired CAS.
Where it is no longer practical or safe for sponsors to see original documents in person, or sponsor sites are closed because of social distancing measures, digital copies of documents can be used instead of originals.
- English language requirements and pre-sessional courses
The guidance relaxes English language testing requirements where previously students had to take a SELT overseas, but a test centre is unavailable. Sponsors that are HE providers and have a track record of compliance will be able to self-assess B1 English language where progression depends on passing the pre-sessional course. This will also apply to institutions who have not been able to maintain a track record of compliance due to pending registration with OfS. Sponsors must keep records of how they have self-assessed.
UKVI are allowing new students applying to switch into Tier 4 in the UK to start studying before their application is decided if certain conditions are met.
The guidance contains more detailed information on the above, as well as on matters such as ATAS certificates, right to work checks and child students. It also sets out guidance for students on a range of matters.
Key players in the industry have welcomed this guidance, with UKCISA and HEPI both responding positively to changes to language assessment.
Questions do remain, for example, will institutions be penalised for not monitoring online attendance “where possible”? Some comfort is given by the UKVI statement that “We will not take action against sponsors who are unable to monitor online contact points due to practical or technical limitations”, but it remains to be seen how consistently this will be applied in practice. Perhaps the most important unanswered question is: how long will these measures will remain in place?